After years of showing potential but not consistency, Parker finally provided the team with what they were looking for: someone who can take advantage of the single-coverage opportunities provided by the presence of LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. Parker finished his first year as a starter with 47 receptions for 690 yards and four touchdowns, which are fine numbers for a number two receiver.
"You just have to make plays," Eric Parker said of the battle to stay on the field.
Where Parker really showed his value, though, was in the playoffs. The Jets where able to contain the Chargers rushing attack and were also able to keep Antonio Gates in check up until the fourth quarter. With the Jets focused elsewhere, Parker took advantage and paced all receivers with nine catches for 93 yards. That is exactly what the team needs him to do.
Although he is undersized at only six feet tall and 180 lbs., Parker is a very sudden player. He has sure hands and makes tough catches in traffic. Although he lacks the elite speed necessary to gain a great deal of separation, he makes up for it with precise route running and stellar body control. Also, as the season progressed he seemed to develop a terrific chemistry with Drew Brees.
When Caldwell blew out his knee in a week six game at Atlanta, the Chargers endured one of their biggest hits of the season. Many said that the injury occurred at a good time, because as Caldwell went down McCardell came in. However, if both could have been on the field at the same time, there's no telling how far the Chargers could have gone.
"I struggled my first two years," Caldwell admitted. "My second year I dropped a lot of balls." Reche is taking his game to a new level," Brees said.
Not in 2004. Caldwell started last season on a tear, as he was on pace for over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns when he went down. Not only did he improve his game, but the plays he made were both explosive and timely. In week one, with the team trailing Houston 13-10 in the second half, he caught a 36-yard touchdown pass. In week four, with the Chargers clinging to seven point lead in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, he turned a one-handed stab with his left hand into a 58-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
"Reche is doing quite well," head coach Marty Schottenheimer said of his progress. "I like to think he is at 98 percent, if not 100 percent. He started off last season in a very positive way and we need to pick it up from that point and move forward."
Even given the brevity of his season, he was the most explosive wide receiver the Chargers had last season. While many have knocked him for being inconsistent since being drafted, he has played well when healthy. While a tad short at five-foot-eleven, he has good bulk at 215 lbs. He has good speed as well, and will be the team's best deep threat if fully recovered from last year's injury. His route running, once an area of concern, has improved greatly. He is the most complete receiver on the team, other than McCardell of course.
Who Should Win:
Caldwell should win the post. With Tomlinson, Gates and McCardell drawing so much attention, Caldwell is the player most capable of fully exploiting any defense which does not pay him ample attention. The numbers he put up last season all came while garnering the attention a number one receiver merits. With decreased defensive attention, he could be primed to do even more damage.
Parker then would move to the slot position, which is a better fit for an undersized receiver such as himself. He will play in just about every third-down situation, as he is a clutch performer with consistent hands who is aggressive when going after the ball. He may regain his punt return responsibilities as well, should Darren Sproles falter. Remember, Parker was a dynamic returner before his increased offensive responsibilities seemingly wore him too thin.
Who Will Win:
This one could go either way, but I'm going to give Caldwell the nod here as well. The team invested a second-round pick on him a short three years ago, and he will be a free agent after the season. The Chargers need to find out if they have themselves a player or not. Also, receiver appears to be one of the Chargers weaker points on the roster. If Caldwell can live up to his massive potential, and he showed signs last year that he can, that will no longer be the case.
"Reche is taking his game to a new level," quarterback Drew Brees said.
This does not mean that Parker will be ignored by any means. He has proven himself to the coaches and to his teammates. He will get considerable playing time no matter who starts and who doesn't. In fact, if the offense continues to progress, he could still put up numbers similar to last year's while playing as a number three receiver.
"Eric Parker is probably as confident a player that we have on this team," Schottenheimer noted.
The Bottom Line:
No matter what happens here the team will be better off at receiver than most pundits expect. McCardell, Caldwell and Parker may not get as much pub as the Raiders trio of Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry, but they are talented and dynamic nonetheless. With the triplets of tallville (Vincent Jackson, Kassim Osgood and Malcom Floyd) backing them up, the Chargers appear set to get more production from the wide receiver position then they have had in a long, long time.
Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net